It’s not that I don’t like ‘high end’ Chinese food, it’s just that I don’t think the cooking is good enough to set it apart from (say) the average Chinese restaurant. Yes that Ling Ling bar is still genius interior design after all these years, but food just isn’t at the same level as the bling. On the other hand, it is hard to put aside preconceptions of Chinese food as a value driven feast. Even for the regality of banquet cuisine, it’s still about abundance, more abalone, more Louis XIII, more dried scallops. I think it’s inherent in the culture, making it difficult to translate it into something more …until I ate here.
Bo London is by Alvin Leung, born in Britain, raised in Canada, who established himself in Hong Kong. An acoustic engineer by profession but who became a self-taught cook. He goes by the nickname ‘Demon Chef’ whose practice of ‘X-treme Chinese’ cooking has earned his HK restaurant, Bo Innovation, two michelin stars. He brings his X-tremities to our shores, the food taking on a British accent along the way, whilst remaining fundamentally Chinese. He’s certainly eccentric and there is absolutely nobody in the business (especially in London) whose work is as colourful as Alvin’s.
I still have this reverence for HK restaurants and so Alvin bringing his cooking to London is definitely exciting news to me. The restaurant looks sleek but also seems casual, a small restaurant. For lunch, BO offers a £30 set, ALC dim sum as bar food and a £98 ten course taster which is the subject of this blog post.
Dead Garden: Green Onion, lime, avocado, enoki, morel
The meal began with an amuse of edible ‘soil’ that hid a bright green foam that was warm, wobbly and onion flavoured. Simple, delicious, balanced, analogous to Hedone’s umami flan. Punchy flavours, interesting presentation.
Bed and Breakfast: Smoked quail egg, crispy taro nest, oscietra caviar
There was a story behind the steel tree structure that held aloft a fried taro nest coddling a smoked quail egg topped with caviar, which I didn’t pay attention to, though I was totally enraptured when I dropped it in my mouth. The egg imploded and then a burst of smoked runny yolk followed, unleashing all kinds of delicious flavours. The briny caviar, the yolk, the smoked notes, richness with lightness, truly well balanced, East meeting West but fundamentally still very Chinese. Someone had gone out of their way to reinvent the humble taro croquette, with much success and with seeming simplicity. Wow (mouthful of a) dish. Now if he would only fill the rest of the steel branches with more of the same.
Cloud: Black sesame ponzu, mackerel, ginger, rose
So this came as a mist of rose scented dry ice – meant to evoke an English rose garden – which looked and smelled nice, I though the theatrics dried up too quickly. The grounded bittersweet black sesame coating for the cubed mackerel, unorthodox as it was, paired up real well. Due to the sesame, to me, this tasted like a dessert reworked as a fish starter.
Foie gras: Lettuce wrap, ”Abby’s” sauce
By this course, the mouthfuls eventually grew to half a handful. Crispy iceberg with a pretty sizeable knob of foie gras. The real winner however was that sauce. The recipe is credited to Alvin’s wife (for which I remain blissfully unaware of the exact details), was a little sweet, a little cheesy, like a Chinese version of béarnaise and it just went so well with the duck liver. Another ridiculously balanced dish but this one seemed so homely and nostalgic. I guess this was that cliche moment where food got so good that it unlocked lost childhood memories in me and made a grown man weep. I loved this, I really loved this. I just wished there was more of it.
Scallop: Crispy woba, jolo, sugar snap pea foam
No idea what woba and jolo are, but I can tell you the sauce was (also) immensely delicious. Sweet, sticky, regal like a Chinese XO oyster sauce superfused with abalone; it had this subtle numbing pepperiness to it. The scallop was a beautiful translucent hue inside, cooked to just under. Great. I wished there were three instead of one.
Steak and Kidney: Xiao long bao, avruga
An OMG moment. I’m no XLB otaku, but I thought this was absolute perfection. The dough seemed to have just the right elasticity & thickness, the soup inside while hot, did not sear my tongue, a rich meaty filling with just a hint of offal funk. I really don’t think I’ve ever eaten XLB quite like this. Amazing balance of flavour, just serious wow. As the saying goes: 入口即化 (that stuff melts when you put it in your mouth).
Wagyu Beef: black truffle, cheung fun
Yeah really nice oily, rich Oz wagyu (probably a sirloin) but for me, the real star were the cheung fun smothered in this seemingly grounded truffled laced thick soya reduction. Loads of generous rich umami flavour, but never over the top, and still recognisably Chinese. Just a pleasure.
Bai Jiu: Ice parfait, caramel, passionfruit
Mousse-like, but with a sort of purity to it, probably because it is supposed to mimic the sensation of rice wine. Who knows, delicious though.
Coconut: Creme brulee
Yeah, it was good egg custard, but truth be told, these desserts seem a little more orthodox than the savouries, until..
..the sex on the beach.
Yes this is that infamous dish. Note the red ribbon, the cause for which this dish supports.
Lychee flavoured jelly made into a condom, and then filled with a condensed milk to mimic you know what. I think it only looks awkward because it’s so realistic. After all, durex does do it in this flavour. Sure, my gag reflex kicked in as I pushed my fork into the ‘condom’ and this I can be sure of never having experienced on any dinner table. Eating or otherwise.
But surprise, surprise, underneath, the sex on the beach was actually a rather good pudding, the best of the lot. A tropical fruit crumble, with high acidity to cleanse the palate.
Petit dim sum.
Not just saying this because we share surnames, but I think Bo London is brilliant. Nothing about Bo London is standard or to be expected and if anything, the restaurant is completely anti-fashion. I loved the meal because I thought the cooking was just wonderful. It may be presented in a whimsical style, interpreted as a crack at fusion, but unlike its competition (in London), Alvin’s cooking at its core, is undeniably Chinese.
For an admirer of Cantonese cooking, I was most impressed by the beguiling balance of flavours that twirled around the palate with precision and purpose… as if I were taking in a champion figure skating performance. As the world of fancy restaurants continue to take more inspiration from the East, Alvin’s cooking tends to the same convergence from the reverse direction. It’s daring, serious but also FUN. I wouldn’t say this is someone who has thrown the rulebook out, rather, I think this is someone who understands and respects his cuisine and is upgrading it in a practical manner. Yes, he’s got some mad ideas but I do think he is genuinely trying to push Chinese cooking into the great beyond. Mad props to a chef who would take a decent pudding and turn it post-coital.
I paid £147.38 for this meal, so no doubt it is expensive. £98 for ten courses is a lot to ask, almost unheard for a new opening post-2008, in the golden age of street-fooding and just a shocker for a Chinese restaurant. Price is always a contentious issue, more so for a cuisine that is thought of as being abundant in quality and quantity as the scales slide up.
Admittedly, I carry the same preconceptions, and psychologically, as the bill inches closer to the 3 figure mark, no matter what the restaurant, diners will develop weighty expectations. Take me and my better half as a case study: It is then the dummy emperor defending his new robes versus skeptical Miss every-bistro. Why should you throw £150 at one meal, when you could spend the same over multiple meals in a town with probably too much to choose from, right? Ultimately, I think it’s about giving the illusion of perceived value for money. Perhaps rethinking the ALC format is necessary but I think the stop gap solution is to maybe double the mouthfuls for each course.
Money issues aside I still feel this is an important restaurant to open in London. For me, this sets the bar for high end Chinese cooking. I’ve never thought of Chinese food as anything more than whatever traditional dishes I’ve been accustomed to all my life, but this has turned my opinion completely. It is creative stuff but to my tastes, it is also very rooted in Chinese cooking. I applaud it for that reason. High end Chinese may be as elusive as a Tazzy tiger and perhaps even rarer in London but I’m convinced that I’ve glimpsed it.
This will burn a hole in your pocket and I have a feeling you may disagree with me on this one, but I do think it’s worth a punt. Alternatively, give the £30 lunch set a go.
Lunch £30-£35set; Dinner 12/14 courses for £98/£138
4 Mill Street W1S 2AX
Tube: Oxford Circus